Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates

Edited by Ian Whates (NewCon Press, 2010)

Conflicts is a themed collection of thirteen short stories by various authors, published by Ian Whates’ NewCon Press. It is also unashamedly a book with a spaceship on the cover. Whates states the aim in his introduction: “brazenly, almost defiantly Science Fiction, not subtly, whimsically or deceptively so; the sort of book where you can smell the sweat and the engine oil, as muscle-bound marines heft huge death-dealing guns in the face of impossible odds …”

In other words, it is meant to be a collection of the kind of stories that got many of us into sf in the first place. On the basis of the intention quoted above, it succeeds in spades. It satisfies on a deeper level too, however, because Whates has ordered the stories not only to show how we got into sf but also to map our subsequent development. He admits later on the introduction: “there is subtlety …” Throughout the book these very modern stories all carry the distinct and welcome whiff of nostalgia.

Before considering the stories themselves, it has to be said that a variable degree of copy editing can be discerned. Most of the stories don’t need much, or any, but typos leap off almost every page from Andy Remic’s contribution. It is doubly depressing because this is the first story of the collection and gives the reader a sinking feeling for what might follow. Calling it ‘Psi.Copath’ and putting ‘Psy.Copath’ in the running header can be laid squarely at the feet of the publisher; however, ‘court marshal’ (ouch) is presumably all the author’s work; also, when a ship ejects its legs before landing, you can’t help thinking just extending them would be more helpful for a soft touch-down. It’s an unfortunate way to start a book. Thankfully none of the others suffer nearly as badly but we are forced to wonder: do all these stories essentially appear as the authors supplied them? And did no one notice? Likewise, someone should have a word with NewCon’s typesetter about widows and orphans – single words and lines at the end of paragraphs that are left dangling before or after a page break. They are distracting to the reader and most DTP packages can deal with them with a single click in the options settings.

With that out of the way …

There are no overt lines of demarcation but the collection breaks down into three quite distinct phases. Part 1: the splody spaceships. Part 2: stories for readers whose tastes have broadened out – closer to home in time and space, more reflective, dealing with the human condition. Part 3: a gradual increase in intensity and scope until we’re back in deep space and deep time again – because, sure, we’re all for the Mundane Movement but face it, deep down we still want the exploding spaceships, don’t we? Thus the collection kicks off with a quartet of tales from Andy Remic, Michael Cobley, Keith Brooke and Neal Asher that are all high space opera of the grandest kind: WMDs on a planetary scale; futuristic, arcane societies; and the requisite muscle-bound marines hefting huge death-dealing guns. However, look beyond the effects and you also get varying degrees of actual characterisation and reasons to care about the outcomes. Cobley (‘The Maker’s Mark’) and Brooke (‘Sussed’) do it best as each deals with sympathetic, even likable low-lives who are each making good in their own ways. The soldiers of Andy Remic’s ‘Psi:Copath’ start by seeming to be pure Aliens-type cannon fodder but it becomes clear that for all their faults they are actually professionals and very good at their jobs: their mission to rescue an imperial galactic princess sounds like it has all the sfnal depth of Star Wars but the revelation of the princess’s actual predicament is a clever, pure science fictional development involving artificial intelligence implemented in a manner that this reader didn’t see coming. By contrast, Neil Asher’s ‘The Cuisinart Effect’ maximises the action-to-plot ratio with pure, pointless videogame violence: an interesting set-up implying trans-dimensional travel to other realities turns into high-tech soldiers being massacred by dinosaurs and the sole survivor survives only by accident. Meh.

The book’s quieter middle movement kicks off unexpectedly with Roseanne Rabinowitz’s ‘Harmony in my head’: from Asher’s soldier-munching dinosaurs we suddenly get a poignant story of loss and missed opportunity set much closer to home, in a café in London on 7 July 2005. This is immediately followed by Chris Becket’s ‘Our Land’, in which the Celtic nations displaced 2000 years ago return to reclaim the British Isles. It is tempting to dismiss this one as just too implausible: what fool would let this situation arise? But then you remember that with a quick find-and-replace of names it exactly describes the present day situation of two adjoining nations at the far end of the Mediterranean and with that mental filter in place it suddenly becomes a powerful tale of seething injustice, saying and telling us everything that needs to be said and known about the real-world situation.

Two more Earth-bound stories follow: Gareth Powell’s ‘Fallout’ and Martin McGrath’s ‘Proper Little Soldier’ – the latter dealing with that most implausible of Earth-based scenarios, the alien invasion, which always raises questions of why invading Earth would ever be the most resource-efficient course of action for an alien race to take. We just have to assume they had their reasons, but against a background of totally trashed civilisation and alien life forms playing with us for sport, McGrath actually manages to find an optimistic note to end on. If George Orwell could say that the future is ‘a boot stamping on a human face forever’, looking on the bright side, eventually the face will stop feeling the pain, won’t it?

And then we’re back into large-scale future space again. Una McCormack’s ‘War Without End’ shows the difficulty of establishing exactly what is and isn’t a war crime, especially when you can’t decide who the victor was either. Eric Brown’s ‘Dissimulation Procedure’ works well but has no particular payoff – it’s a typical Eric Brown story of burnt-out, cynical independent space trader meets free-spirited young thing on a pastoral world with fantastic, album-cover views, but you feel it would work better as the introduction to a novel. David L. Clements’ ‘In the Long Run’ relates the kick re-start of human history, “after the death of the solar system and a pause of 100 million years” and John Mortimore’s ‘Last Orders’ is quite simply about a bar fight, but between two guys wearing power armour such as Heinlein might have written about if he had known about nanotechnology and Stross/Reynolds-grade heavy weaponry.

The final story – Martin Sketchley’s ‘Songbirds’ – is unexpected as it takes us back to the present day and a typical English schoolgirl with typical girl issues of friends, homework and Facebook. Even more unexpected is that it soon becomes clear this is another alien invasion story and we think that Martin McGrath had already done this earlier and just got away with it. Isn’t having two of these in one book really pushing your luck? The difference is that while both involve the total rout of humanity and destruction of everything we know and love, there is no optimistic ending in ‘Songbirds’ at all. It does however take the book full circle back to where it started as that suburban little girl’s adventures expand quite plausibly into the unknown future and battles on far-off planets. The range that the story covers encapsulates the amazing thing about sf: that it can be set next door in the present day, or it can be set amongst fleets of spaceships dropping genetically engineered troops on an alien world, and it’s all equally sf. That is what makes it such an astonishing genre and it is why this is the perfect closing story for an already impressive collection.